Posted on the New York Times
FOR me and my family, Oct. 31 has always been significant. Not because it’s Halloween, but because that’s the day we arrived as refugees to a free part of the world.
Beginning in August 1972, thousands of Asian entrepreneurs fled the East African country of Uganda after its dictator, Idi Amin, declared us to be bloodsuckers, seized our property and gave us three months to leave or die.
My family and I had only Ugandan passports, so we couldn’t escape to Britain or India like many of our neighbors. We’d been in Africa for two generations; my father and his brothers owned a car dealership in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. We didn’t know where to go, but we knew we couldn’t stay: Amin viciously enforced his 90-day deadline.
By the final week of October, the nations that would otherwise accept Ugandan exiles had exceeded their quotas. My family heard that Sweden and Canada might make room for a few more, and so out of desperation my mother, my sisters and I flew to Montreal, with Dad to follow. We had no guarantee that Canada would admit us.
We also had no guarantee that we’d meet an extraordinary immigration agent. But on Halloween 1972, we did.
Though the middle-aged woman had doubtless been dealing with a flood of Ugandan refugees, and though burnout could have led her to turn us back or indifferently wave us through, she chose to talk with a harried mother shepherding three girls under age 7. “Why do you want to live in Montreal?” the agent asked, en français.
My mother, who grew up in the Belgian Congo, mercifully could respond in French. “Why do we want to live in Montreal?” Mum repeated, buying a few seconds to think. “Well, Montreal begins with the letter ‘M,’ and our family’s name begins with the letter ‘M,’ so maybe God believes we will fit nicely together.”
Sensing my mother’s fear, the immigration agent assured her that this wasn’t an interrogation. “It’s just that I’m looking at your daughters,” she explained, “and I realize that they’re all dressed for tropical weather. Madame Manji, have you ever seen snow?”
Terrified at the prospect of being booted out, my mother blurted out, “No, but I can’t wait to!”
“Then you’ve come to the right country,” the agent assured Mum. “With your permission, however, I’d like to send you and your children to Canada’s version of a mild climate.” Several stamps of the paperwork later, we boarded a plane to Vancouver, where I learned to make peace with rain.
Some would reduce this immigration agent to a shrewd gatekeeper of cheap labor, carting us off to a city that would get rich from the Asian work ethic. And yet she was more complex than a caricature. Instead of simply unloading us on the local authorities, the agent cared enough to ask what we might need more of — peace, yes, but also fleece. Her small act of empathy bucked an ice-cold system.
As an adult, I’ve come to understand why I’m so blessed to have immigrated to an open society. Here, the individual — and the choices she makes — matter. The agent chose to practice the first lesson of human rights: just because a problem doesn’t affect you personally doesn’t mean it ceases to exist.
Mum tells me that she’s never been able to track down the lovely lady who let us into Canada. Still, she won’t be forgotten. As Madame Manji reminded her girls on Halloween in 2002, “When we touched this soil, we won the lottery of life.”
Idi Amin died in Saudi Arabia a year after that. Friends assumed that I’d be cursing his corpse. No. His hatred introduced my family to the gift of choices.
On Halloween, one can be forgiven for obsessing with murderers, but it’s not Idi Amin who will dominate my thoughts. It’s the immigration agent.
Irshad Manji, the author of “The Trouble With Islam Today,” is the director of the Moral Courage Project at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.